Feb. 6, 2001 -- -- When 16-year-old Christal Jean Jones of Burlington, Vt., was found dead in a New York brothel, her body reportedly beaten and full of drugs, investigators knew they had a horrible story on their hands. The deeper they have gone, the uglier the story has become.

Authorities believe Jones, a troubled girl with a history of running away, was lured from her relatively bucolic surroundings by a prostitution ring that may have enticed numerous other girls from the area into an involuntary life of sex for pay.

Though the federal, state and local agencies handling the investigation have said little about the case, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said as many as nine girls from the Burlington area — including one as young as 13 — may have fallen victim.

The case has raised questions in Vermont about how the state handles runaways and other troubled teenagers, because it appears that all the girls who were lured to New York were in the custody of the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

It has also raised questions about whether Jones' death could have been prevented. The investigation into the ring began two months before she died and the man suspected of luring the girls to New York had been twice released by Vermont courts despite repeated violations of his parole on an assault conviction.

That man, Jose Rodriguez, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in the 1993 beating and robbery of a man in Burlington's City Hall Park. Rodriguez, who reportedly told police at the time he believed the victim was dead, admitted that he and another man beat their victim with a piece of cinder block and a wooden stake.

Rodriguez, 25, was arrested in the Bronx on Dec. 11, charged with promoting prostitution and statutory rape. His alleged victims were two other Vermont teenagers.

According to various accounts, the girls were lured from the foster homes and state-run shelters where they lived around Burlington by expressions of love and promises of $2,000.

What they received when they got to the Bronx, according to an affidavit by a Bronx police officer, was something altogether different. The affidavit quotes the two girls as saying that Rodriguez shouted threats at them: "I will kill you if you try to leave. I know people in Vermont and New York. I will track you down," and "You must pay me back the money I wired you. I brought you down to be prostitutes. Now you're going to go out there and make me money."

The FBI, New York City police, Vermont State Police and Burlington police all declined to comment on the investigation beyond acknowledging that it does exist.

"It's very complex and getting bigger all the time," Burlington Police Det. Kimberly Edwards said.

The Bronx District Attorney's Office released documents related to the charges against Rodriguez, but refused to say anything at all about the case.

As Many as Nine Victims

"These guys were up here, allegedly, basically going to places where there were troubled girls and offering them drugs and money and who knows what else to come to New York," Gov. Dean said.

To the outsider, it might come as a shock that any girl from Vermont, with its picturesque white clapboard villages, scenic mountains, ski resorts and dairy farms, could be lured to a rundown neighborhood in the Bronx. Experts in both New York and Vermont say it happens less often than it used to, mainly because the media and Hollywood have painted such an unappealing picture of New York.

But in any state there are youngsters for whom life anywhere but where they are is more attractive, who are susceptible to sweet talk, promises and lies.

While Vermont may present an idyllic appearance to the tourists who come for its ski slopes and stunning fall foliage season, the state has its share of social problems. Dean said "a few years ago" gangs tried to move into the state, but police were able to drive them out. He said there is currently a heroin problem "that's probably related to" the alleged prostitution ring.

The fact that all the girls involved apparently were in the custody of the SRS, meaning that all either came from troubled homes or had been in trouble themselves, led Dean to call for an internal investigation of the agency. While lawmakers and SRS officials agree the agency is understaffed, it is widely acknowledged that just budgeting more money for the SRS will not be enough.

"Can you put people under lock and key if they're runaways?" he asked. "I'm sure there are Constitutional issues there. If kids are going to run away, can you hold them, if their only crime is running away? It's really a tough issue."

Cliché with a Tragic Ending

The woman told the Burlington Free Press that Rodriguez "could be very, very persuasive. He's got this smile. He'd show up at the clubs in nice clothes and buy everyone drinks. He had a car with a TV and a VCR. He never seemed to run out of money."

She said he "made believe he loved" Jones, and that Jones "wanted to be Jose's girlfriend."

Jones' death has focused attention on the criminal aspect of the case, but Dean said it has also awakened an awareness that how the state's SRS deals with children in its care needs to be seriously examined. Legislators have joined the call for changes at the agency.

However, Dean suggested that adding staff, making shelters more pleasant or even keeping closer tabs on children in the agency's care might not be enough unless the girls themselves come to appreciate the risks out there.

"One of the things I wanted to do was to get this in the paper," he said. "This kind of story, horrible as it is, can be a very good educator."